Papal breakfasts, problem apps, and the process of real reform
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
It has been an interesting week in the news.
The Holy Father remains in hospital recovering from intestinal surgery, but by all accounts he is progressing well. He, of course, remains firmly in our prayers here at The Pillar.
The Vatican press office has been good at releasing a regular stream of updates on Pope Francis’ status, and while keeping us up to speed with his breakfast order might be a little more information than we absolutely need to know, it is probably best to err on the side of caution in these things.
The pope is 84, after all, and any health issue that requires a week in the hospital is going to trigger the usual wave of concern and speculation. So in terms of papal information updates, more is more.
There has been a lot of talk about a new document expected from Rome which will do something to Summorum pontificum, Benedict XVI’s motu proprio broadening the availability of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
I’ve seen a very broad range of predictions, from a wholesale suppression of the EF to some minor tinkering with how involved the diocesan bishop is in the approval of its regular celebration in a given place — but most of the dramatic predictions are not from especially informed sources. Those with reason to know are predicting a mostly prosaic set of adjustments.
From everything I have heard in Rome, there is something coming, but when (given the pope’s current indisposition and the looming Roman holiday) is anyone’s guess.
As for how significant any change will be, my guess is that whatever the new document says won’t really matter: bishops in favor of wide access to the Latin Mass will still allow and encourage it, and those opposed will still do their best to impede or restrict it where they can.
Speaking of odd Catholic terminology, earlier this week, the pope named Bishop Franklyn Atese Nubuasah, S.V.D. of the Botswanan Diocese of Gaborone as an archbishop ad personam, a very unusual move in which the bishop becomes an archbishop, but his diocese remains a diocese.
We did an explainer of what the heck this means, what it actually means to be an archbishop, and why the pope would name one in a somewhat unusual fashion.
In Nubuasah’s case, it’s likely the pope was acknowledging, at least in part, decades of devotion to the mission of the Church in Africa. But the newly minted archbishop (who does not wear a pallium, by the way) is best known for his decades’ long friendship with George Floyd.
After Floyd was killed last year, Nubuasah released a heartfelt open letter to his deceased friend, telling him he had “just one more task to perform. It is to prepare to welcome the notorious four who killed you into heaven when their time does come and show ‘em round the jolly place we call heaven.”
You may remember our coverage of Fr. James Altman of the Diocese of La Crosse from a few months ago. The priest shot to social media notoriety during the last election cycle for claiming that no registered Democrat could call themselves a Catholic.
More recently, his bishop asked for his resignation as a parish pastor, after Altman made more controversial public statements, including saying that bishops who had enforced pandemic restrictions would burn in the “lowest, hottest levels” of hell, and claiming coronavirus vaccines are a massive experiment designed for social control.
Well, his bishop seems to have issued a decree — a precept, really — severely restricting his sacramental ministry. It’s certainly his prerogative to do that. But canonists are already discussing some technical concerns about the way in which Bishop Callahan issued his decree, and about the plausibility of some of its provisions.
The next chapter of this saga could be a situation in which Rome overturns the precept — not because the Vatican believes he should be in ministry, but because, in the judgment of a number of canonists, the decree is fraught with canonical ambiguities and missteps.
Having raised nearly three quarters of a million dollars, Altman can certainly afford a canonical defense.
In any case — stay tuned. Or, if you can avoid it, don’t. But whether you choose to follow this sordid tale or not, remember how Catholics many are following it keenly, and donating money to Altman at a very good clip. That’s the part all Church leaders should be paying attention to, and trying to understand.
Although it has been 20 years since the Spotlight scandals, and three years since the earthquake of the Cardinal McCarrick revelations, the Church, especially in the United States, is far from “over” the sexual abuse crisis.
As Cardinal Blase Cupich said recently at a press conference, the bishops “must never grow complacent” in confronting abuse, or in acting to prevent any future danger to minors. But remaining vigilant for the bishops will require them to look ahead, not behind, and work to anticipate the next crisis — aiming to stop it before it happens.
This week, we reported on an Ohio priest who will plead guilty to federal child pornography and exploitation charges. What caught our attention about the case, apart from the obvious tragedy of a cleric abusing minors, was this detail:
The priest was arrested after using hookup apps and social media to meet and pay a male minor victim for sex, and to acquire pornographic selfies from minors through manipulation and extortion.
Fr. Robert McWilliams is sure to be laicized for his crimes, but his use of location-based hook up apps like Grindr raises concerns about a new digital front in the fight against child abuse. A quick internet search flags several similar cases in the last few years in the United States and abroad.
Apps like Grindr use the person’s location to put them in touch with other users nearby so they can trade messages and images and facilitate casual sexual encounters. Despite the app requiring users to be over 18, this really just relies on the user to state their own date of birth, and the dangers are sadly all too obvious.
Right now, such cases appear to be infrequent, or at least infrequently detected, but preventing a crisis means responding to problems early and proactively, before a drip becomes a torrent.
Whether the bishops take this emerging online threat to child protection seriously remains to be seen, but prohibiting the downloading and use of hook-up apps by clergy as a matter of diocesan law, with penalties attached, would seem like one obvious first step. Apart from the increasingly clear danger to minors, there is, after all, no obvious legitimate purpose for a priest to have an app designed to facilitate casual sex.
Some might consider making the use of hook-up apps like Grindr a penal matter to be overkill and warn against turning private sins into public crimes. But Pope Francis has made it clear where he stands.
Last month, the pope reissued an updated Book VI of the Code of Canon Law (on penal law). In doing so, he warned that “In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions.”
“This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful,” wrote Francis. “For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties.”
“Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully.”
Well, no one can say they weren’t told.
Never say ‘never’ again
Much of the Catholic world is still coming to grips with the news of the 10 indictments handed down in the Vatican financial scandal last weekend.
One question I have been asked often in the last week is this: how bad is this scandal for the reputation of the Holy See?
Well, I have mixed feelings about that.
On the one hand, a major corruption trial for senior Vatican figures, and evidence of the squandering (if not outright theft) of millions in Church funds, is not a good look for a Holy See already in dire financial straits. Many Catholics are, not unreasonably, wondering if donations to traditionally essential sources of funding, like Peter’s Pence, are not just money for nothing. But I tend towards a broader view of the whole affair.
Sure, this scandal is deeply unpleasant to watch unfold. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture: there is a cardinal going on trial in the Vatican for financial corruption for the first time in nearly 300 years, and Lord knows there have been plenty of deserving candidates in the interim. This is a big deal. It is not the end of the road for financial reform, but this is real, serious, progress.
But, while Pope Francis has done a lot to update the Vatican’s legal system, making his new wave of anti-corruption laws stick is going to take a common effort: “See something, say something” is about as far from the curial culture as you can get, and this applies to people around as well as inside the Vatican.
Despite years of coverage of the unfolding financial scandal around that London building, and the rogue’s gallery of characters charged with managing the Secretariat of State’s money, the announcement that several Vatican officials, including a cardinal, are going to stand trial still came as a shock to many people.
Even as recently as last month, it wasn’t hard to find seasoned Vatican correspondents, Anglo and Italian, quietly and guardedly defending Cardinal Becciu and predicting his eventual rehabilitation.
There’s a lot to be said for the presumption of innocence, and I am certainly in favor of it as an absolute legal principle. But I have also been struck by how many people, despite lots — and I mean lots — of smoke around Cardinal Becciu, were willing to simply wave the clouds away and presume, even insist on, a lack of fire.
Becciu was, to be sure, a very senior curial official and about as close as the Vatican has to a day-to-day CEO for many years. For any journalist who could find their way into his good graces, he was an invaluable source for curial scuttlebutt and at least one side’s version of any internal politicking, and for any curial cleric who could win his approval, he could be a powerful patron.
He was also very good at quietly cultivating his own network of personal influence, not entirely unlike the last cardinal to collapse in a major international scandal.
When the McCarrick report came out last year, many people in the Church — priests, bishops, staffers, and journalists — had to ask themselves hard questions about how they missed (or disregarded) the signs, subtle or obvious. The hard lesson of McCarrick was that people enjoy the access and influence which proximity to power offers. It creates a culture of, at best, willful blindness and, at worst, a kind of complicity for many who would otherwise be expected — should be expected, are expected — to act.
There were, undoubtedly, those around Becciu who saw things, and said something; Cardinal Pell and Libero Milone, the Vatican’s former auditor general, come to mind. But how many others, including curial bishops and cardinals, did nothing, either out of fear or favor for a powerful man it was easier not to cross and far more beneficial to cozy up to?
Depending on what comes out during the trial of Cardinal Becciu, perhaps some of the same people will have to ask themselves the same questions they did after McCarrick — and if they have learned anything new this time.
There is, of course, a world beyond Rome, and Church beyond scandal. The Church remains most alive in the suffering of her persecuted members, and in the labors of her missionaries of the Gospel and at The Pillar, we want to make sure we don’t forget that.
So I want to end with a reminder of something JD mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter: This week (through Tuesday) we are donating $10 of every new paid subscription to The Pillar to Aid to the Church in Need.
ACN is just about everywhere the Church is suffering most, and we want to show our support for those efforts with more than just our words. So, if you’ve been on the fence about joining us here at The Pillar, this is the weekend to do it: make us put our money where our mouth is.
And tell your friends:
See you next week, and pray for the Church.